Thomas Rankin and Tomek Niewiarowski aren’t a couple.
We get that out of the way early in our interview: Niewiarowski has a girlfriend, and Rankin is married. The owners of an e-commerce app, Dash Hudson, are thoroughly committed to others.
Having said that, when these two cofounders mull the history of their (business) partnership, they often return to one metaphor: dating.
A few years ago, Rankin was working in venture capital, but he wanted to found a company of his own. He had seen enough founding teams to know the kind that he wanted to be in himself: a one-on-one partnership. “I had a distinct idea in mind of what the relationship should look like,” he says. “I knew I needed someone to be my foil.” Rankin had finance and marketing skills; he needed someone with strong technical skills to be his cofounder. He started asking friends if they knew any computer science folks, and someone eventually suggested Niewiarowski.
Like so many relationships today, Rankin’s and Niewiarowski’s began digitally, with a few pleasantries being batted around over email. Soon, they brought the courtship offline, meeting at a coffee shop in Halifax.
Like with any first date, Rankin was nervous. “I didn’t know the guy, and he didn’t know me,” he recalls. “I was nervous about whether he’d think I was an idiot with stupid ideas.” At times, he grew self-conscious. “You’re asking someone to invest, potentially, years of his life. So you’re worried that your ideas are just dumb, and he’ll think, ‘Who is this crack job trying to pitch me?’”
But it went swimmingly. “Basically we just kind of hit it off,” recalls Rankin. “We didn’t really spend too much time feeling each other out. We liked hanging out with each other.”
The two began meeting more often. Soon, Rankin was inviting Niewiarowski to a party at a friend’s house for whisky. “I remember thinking, ‘I have to determine if this guy’s good to drink with,’” recalls Rankin–since that’s when a partner’s idiosyncrasies are sure to come out. “We had a good night drinking scotch, and we continued to work on the project from there,” says Rankin. (“I’m from Poland–I can drink a lot,” says Niewiarowski.) Niewiarowski may not have known he was being tested like a suitor on The Bachelorette, but he had nonetheless received a rose.
The two continued meeting more or less weekly, at coffee shops, at a board room at Rankin’s office, or at Niewiarowski’s university. “We shared the goal of continuing to move the thing forward,” says Rankin.
Rankin made regular trips to the Bay Area to meet with investors and others. Eventually, he took Niewiarowski along on a whirlwind trip. “We spent the week in San Francisco doing meetings,” recalls Rankin. “He was an easy guy to hang out with, to travel with. That was kind of a further evolution of the partnership. What do you think, Tomek?”
“That’s a pretty good description of it,” chimes in Niewiarowski (he’s the relatively quiet one in the partnership).
Eventually, it was time to make things official–contractual, even. Things moved fast. “At month three or four, we put it on paper,” says Rankin. The two ironed out an initial founders agreement. “At some point you need a contractual agreement, like ‘till death do us part,’” says Rankin. “It ensures the thing is successful, and also protects each other.”
Soon, the partnership grew into a full-fledged business, and then something of a family, with a handful of employees running around the office. That’s when private cofounder time became all the more important, so Rankin and Niewiarowski began instituting what they refer to as–no joke–“founders’ date night.” These come more or less weekly; the employees go home, but the cofounders work alone late into the evening.
“Couples have date nights,” says Rankin. “That’s a pretty tried-and-true way to keep a relationship in shape. Tomek and I have to put aside one night per week to chat through things that aren’t working in the company–or talking about opportunities that we haven’t had a chance to talk about any other time. Finding that time to connect and solve things is really important.”